Saturday, April 26, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: 2009 Guidelines - Higher But Better? (Part Three of Ten)

The 2009 Guidelines brought many changes as part of the move to a shared income model, all consistent with the growing recognition that the needs, income, and contributions of both parents should be considered in determining appropriate levels of support. The 2009 Guidelines provided, for the first time, a cross-calculation to be used, both in cases of joint custody, where parenting time was “approximately equal,” and split custody, where parents had primary custody of different children. These cross-calculations, which “split the difference” between the putative amounts each parent would be obligated to pay for the other’s custodial parenting, had already been used informally by many judges and practitioners, as one of the more popular methods for determining child support in these situations in the years before the 2009 Guidelines. 

Beyond this explicit treatment of joint custody and split custody situations, the 2009 Guidelines did many other things to move away from the old tendency to unduly focus primarily on the needs of the recipient/custodial parent on the one hand, and to unduly focus primarily on the ability to pay of the payor/noncustodial parent, on the other. For example, the 2009 Guidelines eliminated the “income disregard” (of the first $20,000 of custodial income), which had always only applied to the custodial parent/recipient; this had been justified as the provision of an effective exemption from consideration of what was needed for basic living expenses (“a roof over the head”) for the custodial parent, but was hard to sustain in the face of criticism that the noncustodial parent also had basic needs, including a roof over his or her head as well. 

Other provisions of the 2009 Guidelines, as very thoroughly described by Gayle Stone-Turesky and Katherine Garren in their 2009 article, such as the “circuit breaker” and the new hypothetical guideline used to account for legal obligations to support additional children though done without a court order, all reflected a new, more comprehensive, big-picture, shared-parenting kind of thinking. The new approach was to treat child support as something that springs not from the child support payor or noncustodial parent alone, but from both parents, apportioned and transferred from one party to the other, through use of a shared income formula that first calculates a deemed total shared support amount based on shared financial responsibility. 

Many of us who have been early and consistent champions of shared income and shared parenting, both as models for determining child support and as models for thinking more broadly about parenting and support issues, saw these 2009 Guidelines as a substantial improvement. We saw them as better in many ways, perhaps even for those parents, most often the fathers, who were not the recipients but instead the payors of child support, and even though the 2009 Guidelines raised the obligations for these noncustodial parents, in most if not all categories of payors, to their highest levels ever. As Mark Sarro, economist and former member of the Child Support Task Force, said at the time: “child support amounts under the new guidelines are higher almost across the board (in all but the highest-income cases).” Yet he went on to say that the 2009 Guidelines were better even though higher, because they got the policy right: 
The most notable economic improvement is that the new guidelines symmetrically account for both parents’ financial and non-financial contributions to their children. The guidelines are entirely even-handed; the same rules now apply to both payors and recipients. For example, the ad-hoc income disregard is gone. All of the income definitions and cost deductions apply equally to payors and recipients. So do the amounts in Tables A and B, in proportion to each person’s share of combined income. Conditioning support amounts on the relative contributions of both households in the same way assures that each parent pays child costs in proportion to their relative ability to pay and under the same policy constraints.
 In Part Four, I will address some possible unintended consequences of the 2009 Guidelines.

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